MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday he would decide within hours on a request by two regions of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists to be recognised as independent - a move that could give Moscow a reason to openly send troops.
Separately, Moscow said Ukrainian military saboteurs had tried to enter Russian territory in armed vehicles leading to five deaths, an accusation dismissed as “fake news” by Kyiv.
The developments fit a pattern repeatedly predicted by Western governments, who accuse Russia of preparing to fabricate a pretext to invade Ukraine by blaming Kyiv for attacks and relying on pleas for help from separatist proxies.
Washington says Russia has now massed a force numbering 169,000-190,000 troops in the region, including pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Russia denies any plan to attack its neighbour, which broke away from Moscow’s rule with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But it has threatened unspecified “military-technical” action unless it received sweeping security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO.
European financial markets tumbled at the signs of increased confrontation, after having briefly edged higher on the glimmer of hope that a summit might offer a path out of Europe’s biggest military crisis in decades. The price of oil - Russia’s main export - rose, while Russian shares and the rouble plunged.
At a televised meeting of his Security Council, which normally meets behind closed doors, Putin restated Russia’s demands, insisting that it was not enough for the West to say Ukraine was not ready to join NATO at present.
He also said he would make a decision “today” on the request made a few hours earlier by the leaders of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which broke away from Kyiv’s control in 2014.
Shelling has intensified since last week along a long-simmering frontline between the rebels and Ukrainian forces in east Ukraine. On Friday the rebels abruptly started bussing out tens of thousands of civilians to Russia, accusing Kyiv of planning an attack, which Ukraine denies as propaganda.
Ukraine and the West consider the rebels to be Russia’s proxies, and have been warning for weeks that Moscow might use them to construct a case for war. Washington says it is absurd to suggest that it would be Kyiv that is choosing to escalate now, with Russian troops massed at its border.
‘WORST-CASE SCENARIO’ LOOMS
The televised security council meeting in Moscow allowed Putin and his top advisors to outline their case.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Security Council’s deputy chairman, told the meeting it was “obvious” that Ukraine did not need the two regions, and that a majority of Russians would support their independence. Russia already offers passports to residents of the two regions and Medvedev said there were now 800,000 Russian citizens there.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu appeared to raise the stakes even further by saying that Ukraine - which renounced nuclear weapons after independence from the Soviet Union - had a greater “nuclear potential” than Iran or North Korea.
After talks in Brussels with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, British foreign minister Liz Truss said Western countries were preparing for a “worst-case scenario”. The airlines Lufthansa, KLM and Air France all cancelled flights to Kyiv.
Hours earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron gave hope of a diplomatic solution, saying Putin and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden had agreed in principle to meet.
Putin said Macron had told him Washington had changed its stance on Russia’s security demands, without specifying how. The White House said Biden had accepted the meeting “in principle” but only “if an invasion hasn’t happened”.
Washington, which heads the NATO alliance, has flatly rejected the idea of excluding Ukraine for good or reversing NATO’s eastward enlargement of the last three decades, but has offered talks on weapons deployments and other security issues.